The world is more virtual than it has been before. Some might even call it futuristic. Smart devices are commonplace. We speak to little cylinders in our house that order items for us. Our watches can casually shame us for sitting too long. Even thermostats can be remotely controlled, and learn from our preferences. In a society where everything is just a little more technical, it makes sense that this would translate to other elements of our lives as well.
Including, and perhaps quite significantly, digital memorialization.
The idea of digital or virtual memorials is not what you would call a novel concept. In fact, they’ve existed since the early 1990s, and have continued to evolve with the technology that supports it. Funeral homes post pages for those being buried, along with obituaries. Ancestry.com catalogs historical information in a P2P environment that grants you virtual access to your family’s past. A few years ago, Facebook started creating memorial pages, turning the profiles of the once-living into digital remembrances of the deceased. But for all these well-intentioned examples, there has not existed a single platform dedicated entirely to the preservation of the memory of America’s veterans.
Introducing the Veterans Legacy Memorial
The Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Administration (NCA), has been working with Topcoder to change how we remember Veterans by immortalizing their memory in an online memorial platform called the Veterans Legacy Memorial (VLM). This online memorial will create a lasting legacy for veterans and their families.
“The Veterans Legacy Memorial is an online space provided by the National Cemetery Administration where people can share their memories and appreciation for the service of the 3.5 million veterans interred in our nation’s veteran cemeteries,” says Dr. Bryce Carpenter, Education Resource Officer for NCA and program manager for the VLM. “VLM is a web-based platform that allows family members to host a memorial page for their beloved veteran. Anyone can post thoughts, share memories, upload photos, and simply keep community with those who want to share in memorialization.”
The VLM will provide a communications outlet for continued grieving when the more formal events have ended. The availability of this free virtual space allows those grieving to include extensive content such as stories and have discussions. It is also in keeping with NCA’s mission, which is to honor veterans and their families with final resting places in national shrines, and with lasting tributes that commemorate their service and sacrifice to our nation.
A digital home for grieving without geographical constraints
“To me, this project has a lot of personal aspects to it,” says Jessica Tozer, Digital Services Expert for NCA and program manager for the VLM. “I am a veteran myself, and have lost friends and family members who served in the military. I’m not always able to visit their gravesites in person, so this online memorial will still allow me to pay tribute to my friends and loved ones in an immediate and very personal sense.”
Online memorials also give the bereaved the ability to pull up the veteran’s page and go through the comments or pictures, or post stories about the good times they shared. This can help many people emotionally as they go through the grieving process.
“Grieving doesn’t happen just once, just at the beginning,” Jessica adds. “It’s an organic process. And for some, this can take years. Having the ability to remember and to honor veterans in this way can ease the pain of losing a loved one. It keeps their memory alive.”
A first look at the VLM
Preserving the memory of historical veterans
The VLM is designed to allow everyone access to the memorial information of veterans and families who have received benefits from the VA. This includes historical veterans as well. In fact, part of the platform’s mission is preserving and sharing the information of historical veterans.
“VLM will serve as the digital home for biographical research conducted by students through NCA’s Veterans Legacy Program,” Bryce explains. “This research is done by students under the guidance of their teachers and professors with the intention of sharing the stories of service and sacrifice of hometown veterans back to the community.” He says that this will also be a resource for genealogists, amateur historians, and community groups of all kinds.
Dustin Weaver, Delivery Manager at Topcoder — which is responsible for building this online memorial for NCA — says the functionality is designed to be easy to understand and use. The online memorial was built in a somewhat nontraditional way for government, using a crowdsourcing development model.
“At Topcoder, we design and develop applications using a series of public challenges open to the whole world,” Dustin explains. “We then integrate the various outputs of these challenges into a working application.”
Keeping the memory alive with the VLM
VLM will also enhance the on-site national cemetery experience, allowing people to share in that experience remotely. The heart of the VLM ensures a lasting legacy for veterans and their families — an honor and a responsibility that many veterans feel belongs to them.
“Honoring fellow veterans, allowing their stories to continue in a virtual environment, that’s something that really matters to me,” Jessica says. “Keeping the memory of my fellow veterans alive is important. This is a real way to make that a reality. It’s more than a mission statement; it’s a part of our American narrative. I am proud to be a part of a project that makes that a reality.”
Bryce hopes it will be a way to unite families and friends in those moments of remembrance, even if all cannot be physically present at the gravesite due to distance or mobility issues. “I hope it will be a way for Americans to learn more about the veteran experience and contribution,” Bryce says.
“I served in the airborne infantry of the U.S. Army,” Bryce says. “The military is a complex and broad community, but the culture of the infantry is a distillation of the purest values we all hold in the military: unit before self, country above all. VLM is a way to ensure that everyone who did that is honored for it, no matter when they did it.”
The Veterans Legacy Memorial is expected to be released by Memorial Day, 2019.
*Thanks to Jessica Tozer, Dr. Bryce Carpenter, and Dustin Weaver for their contributions to this article.